I am an Australian of Anglo-Celtic and Northern European background, meaning that my ancestry is English, Cornish, Irish, German and Danish, with a bit of Scottish thrown in for good measure. I was born in Sydney, where I still live. More than five generations of my ancestors on both sides were born in Australia. This takes my roots in the country back to the early 19th century, which in white Australian terms is a long time. One of my ancestors was a convict transported from Ireland because he committed a petty theft. There's every chance that I have more than one convict ancestor. My ancestors were not wealthy people. They have been farmers and shopkeepers and salespeople and musicians and housepainters. My family history attaches me to this place. It is in my blood. Even though I am resolutely urban in my background and my preferences - both my parents, all of my grandparents and most of my great-grandparents were born within the ten kilometres or so which separates the centre of Sydney and the beaches in its eastern suburbs - I am attached to the Australian landscape. The high, bright blue sky, the beaches and the rivers, the scent of gum trees and native flowers and the sound of native birds are all part of me. As much as I love travelling and as much as I can appreciate other, softer landscapes, the one which surrounds me is the one which moves me the most.
For all of these reasons, this is a novel which speaks to me. It probably should be compulsory reading for all Australians and certainly for all Australians whose ancestors arrived in colonial times. This is their story and it is in many respects an ugly one.
The central character, William Thornhill, is a boatman on the Thames, who lives in grinding poverty with his wife and child. In 1806, having been convicted of a theft committed to feed his family, Thornhill's death sentence is commuted to transportation to the penal colony of New South Wales. Over time, Thornhill achieves the status of an emancipated convict and settles on a stretch of land on the Hawkesbury River. In this environment, he, his family and other white settlers come into contact with the local indigenous inhabitants. The indigenous people have no reason to leave the area just because settlers move in, planting crops and building huts and fences. However, the fences cut off their food sources and this makes conflict inevitable. Ultimately, Thornhill has to decide what he is prepared to do to keep the land which has become his obsession.
Fundamentally, the novel is about the Australian colonial experience. The title has two meanings. To Thornhill, the Hawkesbury River is a "secret river" because its entrance from the bay into which it feeds is hard to find. However, it's also a reference to the phrase used by anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner in a lecture in 1968 when he described the brutal acts of genocide against the indigenous people by British colonisers and the subsequent silence about these events, as "the secret river of blood in Australian history".
The narrative describes some horrific events. It also suggests that these events occurred not because evil people wanted to commit unspeakable acts, but because of a total lack of understanding between the white and the indigenous communities. These were groups of people not simply separated by language, but by their entire way of life. The indigenous people had no concept of private ownership and did not build fences. From the point of view of the settlers, this meant that the indigenous people had no relationship with the land. Nothing could be further from the truth and the colonisation of this land meant the dispossession of the original inhabitants. The effects of this dispossession reverberate more than 200 years later.
Grenville creates a strong sense of time and place. While the narrative is exclusively from Thornhill's point of view, she allows the reader to understand how the conflict affected both sides. Just as the indigenous people had nowhere to go when their land was taken away from them, poor settlers (in the early days most of them, like Thornhill, were emancipated convicts) also had nowhere to go. They could not return to England and they had to make the best of what they had here. For them, making a living from the land was an economic imperative, a matter of life and death for themselves and their families. But rather than learn about the land from those who already lived there - and who would have been prepared to share it - they imposed their ways, with devastating consequences.
A few days after finishing the novel, I am still haunted by it. I can understand that the narrative will not have the same affect on those who are not connected to the history it tells. But I feel part of that history and Grenville's work really speaks to me. I almost took away a star because of a phrase which was so frequently used that it started to irritate me, but that impulse subsided after I finished reading. My lasting impression will be of the atmosphere Grenville created and the insight and sensitivity she demonstrated in telling the story.
I decided to read the novel now in anticipation of seeing this theatrical adaptation of the novel next month. The play has been adapted from the novel by one of my favourite playwrights and will be directed by one of my favourite directors. I'm looking forward to seeing it more than ever.